Archive for October, 2018

Watch the first film Frankenstein restored

Wednesday, October 31st, 2018

This year is the bicentennial of the publication of Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking masterpiece Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It is a fitting celebration of the momentous anniversary that the Library of Congress has restored the first motion picture production of Frankenstein and uploaded it to the web for our viewing enjoyment this Halloween.

The first cinematic adaptation of Frankenstein was produced by the Edison Manufacturing Company in 1910. It was directed by James Searle Dawley, former apprentice of Edwin S. Porter, pioneering director of 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, and starred actors from Edison’s stock company — Augustus Phillips as Victor Frankenstein, Charles Ogle as the Monster and Mary Fuller as Victor’s fiancée Elizabeth. Unlike his mentor Porter, Dawley took a static approach, filming staged wide shots straight-on like the audience was viewing a play.

Edison’s title calls it a “liberal adaptation” of the novel, and he wasn’t kidding. Crammed into less than 14 total minutes, the story eschews the now-classic horror elements of Shelley’s story. The creature is not the work of a surgical student who has made liberal use of graveyard materiel. He is created from a sort of alchemical experiment, a witch’s brew of ingredients tossed into a cauldron that produces a crusty carbuncle turned flaming skeleton turned Einstein-haired weirdo.

This was a deliberate choice, the result of growing concerns for the purported immorality of the increasingly popular medium. Edison, keen to keep his most golden goose laying those lucrative eggs, created the first censorship board in 1909 to kowtow to the concerns of moral scolds. Frankenstein was the fist production under the new ethos. The Edison Company catalogue of March 1910 emphasized how bowdlerized the film was as a selling point.

“To those familiar with Mrs. Shelly’s [sic] story it will be evident that we have carefully omitted anything which might be any possibility shock any portion of the audience. In making the film the Edison Co. has carefully tried to eliminate all actual repulsive situations and to concentrate its endeavors upon the mystic and psychological problems that are to be found in this weird tale. Wherever, therefore, the film differs from the original story it is purely with the idea of eliminating what would be repulsive to a moving picture audience.”

Ergo, the complicated questions Mary ShellEy raised about the boundaries of science, the responsibilities of parenthood, the dangers of hubris are replaced by a garden variety morality tale in which a man’s inner evil expresses itself outwardly.

Even though the story had been staged to great success in a myriad adaptations since the 1820s (it was the plays that made the novel a best-seller), the first film of Frankenstein was no a box office success. Critics reviewed it positively, but audiences didn’t respond. After the usual few months of distribution, the prints were withdrawn and the film recycled.

One of them survived, falling into the hands of Wisconsin collector Alois Detlaff in a freakishly round-about way. The rare 35mm print had belonged to his wife’s grandmother Marie Franklin who had a performing jones and used to put on little shows accompanied by film shorts, including Frankenstein. She left her collection to her son. He left it to his son who sold it to a collector who sold it to another collector who sold it to Detlaff in the 1950s.

He knew the film was in his collection and had screened it privately, but the print was in bad condition so he stashed it, only making public its existence after the American Film Institute declared it one of the top 10 most significant lost films in 1980. The movie has been in the public domain since the 1930s and there are many copies of it available online. They’re all pretty terrible, rips from DVDs Detlaff burned of his unrestored print. The Library of Congress went back to the source, restored the film and recreated the missing elements from the originals.

The Library purchased the Dettlaff Collection in 2014 and while it is full of titles we are delighted to add to our holdings, we were especially interested to see Frankenstein, joking that perhaps it might arrive from Wisconsin on a bed of spun gold. While it came in a fairly nondescript can, it didn’t take us long to get the reel into our film preservation lab for a 2K scan in advance of photochemical preservation. From that 2K scan we worked on a digital restoration. The film’s head credits and the first intertitle were missing, but fortunately the Edison Historic Site in East Orange, New Jersey, had a copy of the head credit we could drop into place; the intertitle was recreated using the style of the other titles. We asked Donald Sosin, a highly regarded silent film composer and accompanist, to provide a score.

So without further ado, be he trick or be he treat, here is the first on-screen Frankenstein:

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Ball in the Stone Part II: the Call of the Wall

Tuesday, October 30th, 2018

The plan was to go back to the Appia Antica, walk the ecological park of Valle di Carafella, check out its various columbaria and nymphae, maybe hit a catacomb or two. The Museo delle Mura had been such a treat on Sunday that I didn’t get very far down the ancient road after going through the Appian Gate. So Tuesday I set off bright and early going largely the same way. A rhino was spotted and it was good. Instead of taking Via di San Sebastiano, however, which leads directly to the gate and the museum, for variety’s sake I decided to take the Via di Porta Latina which diverged left to go to a different, much smaller gate a short distance from the big one. It’s a pretty road with large walled villas on either side, walls I hugged more than once when cars barreled down the tiny cobblestone street.

The gate in sight, I stopped to read the info panel about the wee church of San Giovanni in Oleo, a Renaissance structure (original design attributed Bramante, current roof by Borromini), built on the site of a 5th century church which ostensibly marked the spot where John the Evangelist was martyred by Domitian by being boiled in a vat oil. Well, almost martyred. It didn’t take, so alive and unboiled, John was exiled to Patmos where he wrote the book of Revelation.

An obstacle arose here too in the form of a tour group that would not move the hell on so I could get a picture of the Porta Latina. Patience, which I hear is a virtue although I wouldn’t know from personal experience, paid off eventually. Proof:

After stepping through the gate, I was visited by a vision of the Aurelian Wall extending down the hill in the opposite direction from the Porta Appia. It called to me, a stone and brick siren 30 feet high and a half-mile long. I had to follow its call. That whole stretch of wall from the Porta Latina to the Porta Metronia is a park, a peaceful green space on the perimeter of a residential neighborhood. There were more dogs than people.

It was so wonderful a walk that I would have gone on to the next gate, the Porta San Giovanni, had not dark forces prevented me. The dark force in this case was the construction of Metro Line C whose high scaffolding was wrapped tight like an anti-present blocking the view of the wall and access to the street under it. I could have continued nonetheless, heading in that direction even if not at the foot of the wall or even in view of it, but I didn’t know when I’d get back to proper wall walking. I turned back, going on to the Porta Appia to resume my original trajectory.

And so I reached the Valle di Carafella, embarking on an exploration of its archaeological sites. There was just one problem. Most of the sites of note are way at the end of the park. I enjoy an ecological preserve, mind you, and had I not had a very specific brief, I would have gladly spent the day hiking the whole thing. Instead, I reached the working farm, received the blessing of Juno’s representative, and then turned back.

It was the wall, you see. Its call could not be denied. Facing the Porta Appia, I turned left and walked. And walked. And walked some more. I reached the Porta Ardeatina and the Christoforo Colombo, the large thoroughfare that took us home/to town so often when I was a child. I kept going. And going. At one point I found some stairs and climbed them. They took me to a high road (far more modern) that tracked the inside of the wall. It was from the internal wall perimeter that I saw the gate. It was the Porta San Paolo.

When I walked through it, the pyramid of Gaius Cestius welcomed me. The marble cladding, mottled grey and white, gleamed in the sun. Never once, when I was little, did I imagine the blackened, weed-choked pyramid could ever look like this. It’s one of the best restorations I’ve ever seen. It was a little thin on cats, however. They used to colonize the base of the pyramid and there were zero cats to be found. Thankfully the Cimitero Accatolico, the non-Catholic cemetery best known as the final resting place of John Keats, “one whose name was writ in water,” was as catty as I recalled.

With such a broad stretch of Aurelian Wall under my belt, my quest for the cannonball was reinvigorated. It would be mine. Oh yes, it would be mine. Stay tuned for Part III wherein your faithful narrator’s journey comes to its explosive (unexploded, actually) conclusion.

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The quest for the ball in the stone: Part I

Monday, October 29th, 2018

I didn’t set out to go on a hero’s journey, complete with call to adventure, ordeal by forces of supernatural power, abyss-despair-failure, overcoming all hardships to gain the reward, but that’s what ended up happening. This is the final part of the quest, wherein I return with the treasure to benefit humanity. So, like, you guys.

The story begins on September 20th, 1870, when the army of the Kingdom of Italy, then less than a decade old, breached the ancient Aurelian Wall at Porta Pia to wrest Rome from the white-knuckle grip of Pope Pius IX and make it the capital of a truly unified Italy. The date and the breach of the walls has gone down in history with a spin that’s more legend than fact. The army did “besiege” the city, but the siege amounted to three hours of cannon fire against the walls.

If you’re thinking that maybe it’s not all that remarkable that a few hours of cannon fire would breach a 1600-year-old wall peppered with holes, cave-ins, crumbling ramparts and patchwork repairs, you are wise. The Pope’s resistance was token. He knew it was over; he just didn’t want to go down without some pretense at fighting back. After those three hours of artillery lobbed at Porta Pia, 72 troops — 53 Italian and 19 papal — were dead and the kingdom’s forces made their triumphal entry down the Via Pia, today named Via XX Settembre after that momentous day.

Nowadays, the Aurelian Wall at Porta Pia is a snarl of traffic with the modern version of the ancient consular roads transporting an endless parade of cars, motorini and buses both tourist and public. The Corso d’Italia, fat with lanes and divides and over and underpasses, runs along the outside of the wall past the former Porta Salaria (demolished in 1921) to the Porta Pinciana.

Somewhere between the Porta Pia and Pinciana, embedded high on a tower of the Aurelian Wall is a single cannon ball that was shot during the siege of September 20th. As I had already determined to walk as many tracts of the ancient wall I could manage, I thought it would be groovy to cap one of those walks with a picture of the 1870 cannon ball in the 270s wall. I knew from my childhood days that the Borghese Gallery is right across from the Pinciana Gate north of the city, its massive park stretching out below the villa itself practically all the way down to the Porta del Popolo, the gate adjacent to the church of Santa Maria del Popolo famous for its Caravaggio paintings. The stretch of Aurelian Wall that goes up the hill from the Porta del Popolo towards the Porta Pinciana still stands. It’s called the Muro Torto (crooked wall, after a sharp dogleg east) and when I was a kid, I had a distinct fixation with it, staring at the looming structure whenever we drove by it. I was looking forward to experiencing that looming feeling even more keenly walking at its feet.

Such was my call to adventure. The ordeals began with a “sidewalk” that could only have been designed by forces of supernatural malignity. Sometimes it was wide enough for two feet. Sometimes it wasn’t. More than once it was a line painted on asphalt, literally forcing my back against the wall, hands clutching the clammy grunge of masonry and brick as cars sped past me so fast they made a laser-like “pew!” sound. When there was sufficient sidewalk to lower the risk from almost certainly deadly to “danger Will Robinson” flailing, new enemies sprang up in the form of weeds. The embankments and sides of the walls were choked with vegetation, so much so that I feared I’d miss the cannon ball hidden in cascades of wild plants.

But the obstacle that would defeat me, seemingly ending my quest, was road work. I wasn’t even at the top of the hill when the sidewalk and right lane were taped off for some pressing infrastructure modification project. Being in Rome, I did as any Roman would do and simply ducked under the tape to continue on my not-so-merry way. I was chased out by a supernatural apparition only spoken of in hushed tones in this city but never seen: an actual worker working.

Now I was on the street, a target for high-speed vehicles and their eardrum-shattering horns. Again I had to walk feet splayed outwards, heels together, in the few inches of gutter space that made the difference between life and death. If the cannonball had appeared during that stretch, there was no way I could have seen it.

Finally at the top of the hill but not even at the Porta Pia yet, the wall disappeared. The last I could see of it ended in a piney private park far above me. I had to admit defeat. Crushed, bereft of cannonballs, I lost hope and had to find a new reason to go on. I walked heavily down the steps to the Spagna Metro station and made my way to the patrician domuses under the Palazzo Valentini in Trajan’s Forum where I had booked a tour.

It turned out to be an epic tour and will be a topic for its own chanson de geste, but it could not erase the memory of my lost cannonball. It would be the Aurelian Wall itself that would resuscitate the deceased hope that I might achieve my quest after all.

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Oldest intact shipwreck found in Black Sea

Sunday, October 28th, 2018

The long story and vertiginous conclusion of your faithful narrator’s two-day quest to get a picture of yet another random artifact will be soon told in (excessive) detail, but it’ll take me a while to get the pictures leading up to THE picture sorted, so while I’m winging over ocean I guess I’ll let the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project get a little attention. Its researchers have discovered the oldest known intact shipwreck, a merchant vessel of Greek design previously only seen on the side of Greek vases.

It was found a little over a mile below the surface of the dark, cold Black Sea, preserved in mind-boggling detail by the lack of oxygen and wood-devouring organism. The ship is 75 feet long and is resting comfortably on the sea floor complete with mast, rudders and rowing benches.

“A ship surviving intact from the classical world, lying in over 2km of water, is something I would never have believed possible,” said Professor Jon Adams, the principal investigator with the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project (MAP), the team that made the find. “This will change our understanding of shipbuilding and seafaring in the ancient world.” […]

The team reportedly said they intended to leave the vessel where it was found, but added that a small piece had been carbon dated by the University of Southampton and claimed the results “confirmed [it] as the oldest intact shipwreck known to mankind”. The team said the data would be published at the Black Sea MAP conference at the Wellcome Collection in London later this week.

With so much of it intact, the ship can be identified as the same type depicted on the Siren Vase in the British Museum. The Siren Vase, believed to have been found in the Etruscan necropolis of Vulci but made in Attica, dates to 480-470 B.C., the same period as the ship. It pictures Odysseus tied to the mast to resist the song of the sirens who surround him. Six oars are visible on the port side.

I can’t tell from the photo of the shipwreck how many oars it had, but it looks to me that there are seven or eight rowing benches extant, so very similar in size to the imaginary vessel on the vase. It’s pretty amazing to picture Odysseus’ rowers perched on those benches.

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Departure

Saturday, October 27th, 2018

Roman Idyll 2: The Rhino Gets His is officially at an end and in a few hours I will be on my way across the Atlantic. There is much more to post about, so the Rome reports will continue upon my return. For now I must sign off with the deepest of sighs. A week could never be enough.

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How’s this for a view from your office?

Friday, October 26th, 2018

Heading south in the historic center shortly before one encounters a rhino in front of a quadrifons arch, there’s a lovely palazzo off Piazza Campitelli on the Via Montanara. The first time I happened past it was when I went to the Museo della Mura at the Porta Appia. That was Sunday and the portellone (big ol’ door) was closed so it was just a felicitously located building. I barely noted it because it was clearly new (well, new for Rome).

When I returned down that path for the Wednesday excursion which took me past the rhino, the portellone was wide open and I saw a beautiful courtyard with a fountain and a few handsome pieces of ancient marble work. That was notable and how. I popped in to have a quick look around, as one does in open doors in Rome, and I saw this:

That is what the employees of the Municipal Department of Culture see every morning when they trudge in to the office. The door was open for randos like me to wander in because there’s a little information booth with a bunch of pamphlets about cultural activities sponsored by the city and oh yeah, a freaking incredible view of three important ancient sites and a cool Renaissance building.

The view from the courtyard stretches from the slopes of the Capitoline to the Velabrum valley. This was always a busy area, even before the Cloaca drained the marsh, because it’s where the Isola Tiberina divides the Tiber making a convenient ford for a commercial harbor. The remains of the first bridge built on the river, the Ponte Rotto, still stand in front of the island.

Once the marshes were dried up, the area filled with temples and monumental structures. The Theater of Marcellus was built in by August in 13 or 11 B.C. in memory of his beloved nephew who died at a young age under suspicious circumstances (did Livia poison him?). It was originally three levels high, the first level supported by Doric columns, the second Ionic and the third adorned by Corinthian pilasters. It seated 15,000.

A Temple of Apollo was first built on the site in 431 B.C. by consul Gnaeus Iulius Mento in thanks for the conclusion of a plague. It was the first and for centuries the only temple to Apollo in the city. The remains visible today date to a rebuild of the site during the Augustan period, a rebuild made necessary by various demolitions done to accommodate the Theater of Marcellus.

You will not be surprised to hear that the theater, like sooo many other ancient Roman buildings, was converted into a fortress by local potentates. In the Renaissance the fortress got an architectural upgrade into a palace, designed by Baldassarre Peruzzi for the noble Savelli family, later owned by the Orsini.

In the 1930s, the Fascist thirst for creating a grandiose vision of the ancient Caput Mundi led to the demolition of much of the medieval and Renaissance construction in the area. The columns from the Temple of Apollo, incorporated into a later building, were reconstructed in their original location and raised on April 21st, 1940, Rome’s birthday. Other remains were released from the bondage of the structures built on top of them.

So what you see from the courtyard is a remarkable cross-section of Roman history. The tower in the left middle ground is the Torre dei Pierleoni, a medieval defensive tower once linked to all the fortressification of the Theater of Marcellus. A block or so behind it, past the tree, is the facade of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, of Bocca della Verita’ fame. On the right is the Theater of Marcellus, only two of its original three ancient storeys remaining, with the Renaissance palazzo taking up the third storey now. The columns and hill they’re on are the site of the Temple of Apollo. The mass against the fence in the left foreground is the podium of the Temple of Bellona, originally erected in 296 B.C. to celebrate a victory over the Etruscans and also reconstructed under Augustus (5-15 B.C.). The building with the tile roof overlooking the Temple of Apollo is the Albergo della Catena, an active inn from at least the 16th century until 1931 when it was bought by the city of Rome.

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Random arch rhinos

Thursday, October 25th, 2018

In the Forum Boarium across from the Theater of Marcellus and a block or so from Santa Maria in Cosmedin where crazy people who have seen Roman Holiday one too many times line up for hours to get a picture of themselves putting their hands in an ancient manhole cover, lies one of those gems that is so large it’s weird to call it hidden. And yet it is, at least in the sense of being little known these days.

It is the only surviving quadrifrons arch in Rome. Quadrifons literally means “four fronts” and that’s how the arch was designed: four pylons supporting a cross vault, like the way you set up the central double wicket in croquet. That gives it the look of a cube with a gate on each side. It’s the four faces that earned it the appellation Arch of Janus, a deity sometimes depicted in Roman iconography in the form of Ianus Quadrifons, so with four faces instead of two. The arch wasn’t dedicated to him. The Latin word for door, “ianua,” is derived from the god and is the likely reference in the name.

There are no records of it going by the Arch of Janus in antiquity. Historians think it might be the “arcum divi Constantini” listed as one of the monuments in the Velabrum in the regionary Notitia urbis Romae in which case it would have been dedicated to Constantine or his one of his sons Constantine II, Constans or Constantius II.

The arch was built in the second half of the 4th century A.D. in the Velabrum, the valley connecting the Roman Forum with the Forum Boarium (the cattle market). Once a marsh fed by the Tiber, the area was drained by the construction of the Cloaca Maxima, and the arch straddles the large drain leading to the great sewer. It was constructed of concrete and faced with marble taken from earlier structures. The marble cladding of the pylons have two rows of three niches on each side. Empty now, they originally contained statues. Today the only figural decoration remaining is a different goddess on each keystone: Roma on the east pylon, Minerva on the north, and possibly Juno and Ceres on the remaining two (identification is uncertain).

In the Middle Ages the Frangipani family occupied it, filling in the gates and using it as a fortress. Those alterations were corrected in 1827-1830 and the arch became an arch again. There was just one wee little problem. The restorers mistakenly believed that an attic atop the arch was a Frangipani addition and tore the whole thing off. It was original, part of the ancient arch now lost forever.

Through the opening of the gates you can see the church of San Giorgio al Velabro right behind it. In 1993, a car bomb went off in front of the church, after which the arch was fenced in and visitors locked out. While other buildings in the Velabrum were restored in the 90s and early 2000s, the arch alone remained untouched, blackening under the constant assault of Roman traffic. It was included in the World Monuments Fund 2014 World Monuments Watch, and with funding from private sponsors, the WMF and the Superintendency for the Coliseum were able to start an in-depth study and restoration of the arch.

In May of 2017, visitors were invited to see the work in progress at a WMF-organized Watch Day. This video shows tantalizing but not satisfying snippets of the restoration.

A year and a half has passed since that Watch Day, and as of 9:00 AM October 24th, 2018, the Arch of Janus is still fenced in. A sign on the gate warns that visitors are not allowed due to the ongoing restoration work. There was no work visible. No workers. No scaffolding. There was, however, a rhino.

Rome, ladies and gentlemen.

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20 Chimú statues discovered at Chan Chan

Wednesday, October 24th, 2018

Because history nerds cannot live on Rome alone (jk, we totally can, but I loved the pics from this story so I’m interpolating a little pre-Hispanic Peru into my Roman idyll), I digress to cover a neat discovery at the ancient Chimu culture site of Chan Chan in northern Peru. Archaeologists have unearthed 20 wooden statues that date back 800 years. They are the oldest sculptures found so far at Chan Chan.

The statues are 27.5 inches high and made of black wood. They wear beige clay face masks which make for a striking contrast against the darkness of the wood. (They’re like the ancient Peruvian version of No Face from Spirited Away.) Each has a circular object on its back that may represent a shield. Of the 20 idols, 19 are intact, one was devoured by termites.

The idols are set in two rows of opposing niches occupying a ceremonial corridor of the Utzh An (the Great Chimu palace). The walls are decorated with high reliefs more than 100 feet long, primarily lines of squares reminiscent of a chessboard. There are also wave patterns and images of the “lunar animal,” a dragonlike quadruped accompanied by lunar symbols which is one of the most ancient recurring figures in Peruvian iconography, first appearing in the early Moche culture. The corridor was discovered in June and was filled with soil. It was excavated over the course of months. The statues were first uncovered in September.

The Chimú ruled the northern coastal area of Peru from around 850 A.D. until the Inca conquered them in 1470. Chan Chan was the capital of their empire, Chimor, and it was the largest city in pre-Columbian South America. At its peak, Chan Chan had an estimated population of some 40,000-60,000. It was not overbuilt – the modern city of Trujillo is 2.5 miles to the northwest — and the archaeological site attests to what a great urban center Chan Chan was. In the eight square miles of the excavated city, there are more adobe buildings than in any other city in the Americas, and only the magnificent Achaemenid Citadel of Bam in Iran is larger. (Bam may have lost the title, however, after it was leveled most brutally by a 2003 earthquake. It was almost entirely rebuilt but some structures could not be restored.)

This great video shows the excavations at Chan Chan, including how the soil fill around the statues was painstakingly removed to reveal the full figures.

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Random street marbles

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018

This morning was all about the city of Rome as an easily accessible museum with no tickets to buy. After the de rigeur breakfast caffe’ at Sant’Eustachio, which, just by the by, is a miracle wondercoffee touched by the gods, it was off to see a couple of little things plopped in the middle of random alleyways in the centro storico. First up: a lump of marble with what looks like a cut in it. According to legend, that cut was put there by the Roland, knight of Charlemagne and hero of France’s national epic, the chanson de geste The Song of Roland. This is why the tiny, otherwise unremarkable alleyway is called Vicolo della Spada d’Orlando (Alley of the Sword of Roland).

There are actually two legends attendant this lump, both star not just Roland, but his trusty sword, Durendal. Durendal was the sharpest sword in the world and unbreakable because it was filled with the power of four relics: one tooth of Saint Peter’s, some blood from Saint Basil, a piece of the Virgin Mary’s robe and a hair from Saint Denis. Charlemagne had received it directly from an angel and gave it to his loyal warlord Roland.

Roland was fighting a Muslim ambush at Roncesvalles in northern Spain, slaughtering thousands with his great skill in combat and his unbreakable, sharpest of sharp sword. Even so, the Franks were tremendously outnumbered and when he saw that he was about to be overrun, Roland tried to destroy Durendal to keep such a powerful weapon out of their hands. He struck a powerful blow against a solid marble column. The sword did not break. It just cut the column instead. Roland would die at Roncesvalles from blowing his horn Oliphant, calling to Charlemagne’s forces that they avenge him. He blew so hard his temples exploded and his brains popped out. Somehow, the piece of marble with the cut in it made its way to a Roman alley. That niggling detail is not recorded in this iteration of the legend.

The second version cuts the whole mysterious transport of a column chunk out of the picture and instead simply declares that Roland was in Rome this one time. He was attacked and in defending himself against said attackers, he slashed vigorously in all directions at his many enemies, inadvertently cutting through a nearby column.

Now, it is reasonable that a whole column might have been in that wee streetlet, because the remains of a wall have been found there that once belonged the Temple of Matidia, a temple built by Hadrian in 119 A.D. dedicated to his mother-in-law Salonia Matidia, niece of Trajan. Almost none of that temple remains, but there are a couple of columns embedded into a palazzo at the end of the alley in Piazza Capranica. That Roland happened to be walking by only to be beset upon by foes and stabbed his invincible sword in the stone may be less reasonable but it’s even more awesome.

Amusing anecdote typical of Rome: there were three workmen lounging around at the entrance to the alley. They were very busily engaged in smoking in conversation. I bid them good morning and stepped between them to sidle into the Vicolo. One of them told me there was no entry. I pointed out that I had already entered, really, and only wanted to catch a glimpse of the Roland thingy. He was all “Eh. Might as well go through since you’re there.” AGREED, KIND SIR!

After all that ado, here is the mark of the spada d’Orlando, one as I found it with a tiny (empty) bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin on top, one as I left it, garbage removed.

The second stop on the random alleyway tour was Via del Pie’ di Marmo, Way of the Marble Foot. I wrote about that marble foot more than seven years ago when it got a shiny new pedicure transforming it from the gunky blackened thing I remembered from childhood to a clean white. The news accounts at the time said it had a new fence around it, and so it does, a simple black iron square band. It’s not as bright white as it was seven years ago, but frankly I think the lived-in look suits it better. I’m happy it got some attention amidst the unstoppable avalanche of work that always needs doing in so ancient a city.

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The walls, awake this time

Monday, October 22nd, 2018

Where were we? Right. The Aurelian Walls south where the Appia Antica begins. Today it’s known as the Porta San Sebastiano after the Christian soldier martyred by Diocletian whose remains are interred in the basilica that bears his name a couple of miles down the Appia, but its original name when it was built by Aurelian around 275 A.D. was the Porta Appia, for obvious reasons, and the museum’s labels and maps refer to it by the Aurelian name.

Before you reach the huge gate with its two crenelated towers that make it look like a storybook medieval castle, there’s a much smaller, rather hard-worn Roman arch called the Arch of Drusus. It bears no relation to your friendly neighborhood blogger and probably no relation to any of the other Drusi who have graced (or disgraced) the family name either. It was used as part of an extension of the Aqua Marcia added by Caracalla in the early third century to feed the enormous thirst of his new baths. It pre-existed the construction of the spur, however. All that’s left of it now is a single arch — it used to be a triple — with some concrete and brick on top that likely dates to after the Caracalla-era construction.

You can see from the picture that the arch appears as you approach on the Via Sebastiano (closed to traffic on Sundays, btw, so pedestrians and bikes get to spread out nicely). Click to enlarge the image because the arch almost disappears against the towering backdrop of the gate. Here it is as seen from the window of the first gallery in the museum:

Arch of Drusus viewed through the window of the first gallery in the Museo delle Mura.

Incidentally, the black and white mosaic inlaid in the marble floor of that first gallery (see pic from yesterday) is not ancient. The marble floor isn’t either. They were installed in 1942-1943 when the Porta Appia was used as an office by the Secretary of the Fascist Party Ettore Muti. There are no labels claiming that modification, needless to say.

Actually, there are very few in the way of information panels in the whole museum. The first room did have a nice touchscreen with photos and explanations of the walls (all of them) and the gates from the early Servian ones to the Aurelian, the modifications of Honorius, and later demolitions/reconstructions by a slew of Popes. It was comprehensive and the text is available in Italian and English. I wish they sold a version in book or DVD form, but they don’t sell anything. No gift shop at all. That makes me a sad panda, especially since I really want a foldout version of this model:

A few more details about the awesome wall walk. There are more stairs than you might expect leading up to and down from the towers, and they have pretty hefty rises. None of the information placards mentioned the steps, so they could date to Aurelian, Honorius or later alterations, or be a mixture. I bring them up because they very clearly employ recycled building materials, a practice that was done from ancient times all through to 20th century when laws against cannibalizing cultural patrimony were passed.

Here is an arrow slit just because I think arrow slits are cool, and this one is deep in an ancient wall therefore extra cool. The bow windows in the Porta Appia were modified as late as 1848 when they were made more rectangular to accommodate modern artillery, as you can see in this image. A pigeon gave me a brutal side-eye through one of those and it would have made such an awesome picture but the little bugger flew off before I could capture him.

The third tower along the wall walk route is nifty for two reasons: it retains its original configuration from the modifications of Honorius (401-402 A.D.) and because a hermit is believed to have lived there in the Middle Ages. A fresco of the Virgin Mary and Child was painted on the exterior during that time. It was recently restored and still looks pretty bad, not unexpectedly so given its exposure to the elements for centuries and the budget nature of the original work.

I mentioned in my bleary post yesterday that the interiors of the two massive flanking towers were cool. They are suffused with light, unlike the towers in the wall, and the west tower has a fascinating series of graffiti preserved and embedded in its new(ish) plaster walls. I assume these came from the outside of the gate which still has a bunch of medieval inscriptions carved into its marble, but there were no panels explaining them.


There you have it. A reasonably full account of my visit to the Museo delle Mura. Obviously I recommend it highly, and since the Appia Antica starts at its feet, it’s an excellent way to start off an excursion to the catacombs and many, many other important burial sites along Rome’s most trafficked ancient roadway.

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